State regulators rejected plans by Connecticut’s two largest electric utilities to begin disconnecting service to customers with unpaid bills, after audits of customer phone calls turned up instances when the companies failed to provide sufficient information regarding options for payment plans.
PURA ruled on Monday that Eversource, United Illuminating, and their gas subsidiaries cannot reapply for regulatory approval until Gov. Ned Lamont’s declaration of a state of emergency expires or the regulated winter protection period ends on May 1.
According to the ruling, UI and Eversource provided customers with “inconsistent and incomplete” information about payment plan options, and both companies, as well as Eversource subsidiary Yankee Gas, have been fined for the issues this year. The fines came with a directive that the companies retrain their customer service representatives.
The state’s utility regulator ordered that the energy providers must ensure that “sufficient customer resources and protections” are implemented before resuming disconnections. The companies have been barred from service disconnections since March 12, 2020, in response to the economic toll of government-ordered pandemic protections.
Thousands of Connecticut customers have enrolled in utility payment plans during the pandemic. Eversource reported last month that it had 12,728 residential electric customers enrolled in COVID-19 payment plans that spread overdue bills over 24 months with no interest, and those customers owed a combined $13.8 million.
The company also reported in February that 14,805 residential electric customers were enrolled in the Matching Payment Plan program that is available to customers who qualify for “hardship” accounts because they are unable to afford their bills. Those customers collectively owed $34.6 million in overdue electric bills.
PURA finds violations over customer calls
Last week, PURA fined Eversource $20,000 after regulators found two instances when customer service representatives failed to provide customers with sufficient information. Those instances were discovered in a sample of 20 calls made over the first five days in February.
In one call, an Eversource customer service representative incorrectly informed a customer that the hardship protection would only protect her for 60 days from shutoff. The representative also failed to tell the customer that she might be eligible for additional assistance, including a matching payment program that provides company matches to payments made by low-income customers who have electric heat and are receiving assistance from Operation Fuel or the state energy assistance program.
In a separate call, a customer service representative appeared to provide confusing information to a customer about the difference between payment plans and a hardship designation – which can offer more assistance to customers who qualify for it.
“If a customer is not evaluated for hardship qualifications or explained the hardship options, or if the customer is funneled toward particular payment arrangements, the customer cannot accurately evaluate their options,” PURA explained when it issued the fine.
In January, PURA also fined UI $3,000 for a violation on one call out of the ten that regulators audited, when a customer was not enrolled in a hardship program even after she told a company representative that she should be eligible because she received Medicaid and Social Security payments.
Though PURA did not fine UI for any additional calls, regulators noted that there were a number of instances when callers were provided with incorrect information. In multiple calls, according to state regulators, UI representatives mentioned a target date for disconnections over unpaid bills, even though the company has not been authorized to resume those disconnections/
“It is concerning that [representatives] are neglecting to inform customers of all applicable information,” regulators noted along with the fine.
Eversource subsidiary Yankee Gas was ordered to pay $30,000 last week over violations on three of the 20 calls regulators audited.
In one case, a Yankee Gas representative failed to enroll a customer in a hardship plan after indicating the customer was eligible. In a second case, a representative incorrectly told a customer that they were not in a hardship plan and could be subject to disconnection, when in fact the customer was in a matching payment plan only available to hardship customers. In a third case, a representative failed to screen a customer for eligibility for a hardship plan.
Regulators say they assume the sample of calls is representative of customer interactions, and that the identified lapses demonstrate the companies have not sufficiently protected customers to warrant resuming service disconnections for unpaid bills.
Aquarion resumes disconnections
To date, the only utility in Connecticut approved to resume disconnections is Eversource’s water subsidiary, Aquarion, which began those shut offs in February.
Aquarion serves about 700,000 people in 57 cities and towns in Connecticut, which include some of its wealthiest – including Greenwich, New Canaan and Darien – as well as some of its most distressed, including Brideport and Norwich.
While regulators have fined Eversource and it’s subsidiary Yankee Gas, and UI and its subsidiary Connecticut Water, PURA Director of Legislation, Regulations and Communications Taren O’Connor told CT Examiner that regulators have not seen evidence that Aquarion has similarly failed to abide by regulations in its customer communications.
A motion from officials at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection requesting that PURA halt disconnections by is still pending. O’Connor explained that until PURA rules on that motion, its decision on the matter stands.
Aquarion shut off service to 33 customer accounts — including 31 residential accounts — in February. The company has not yet reported to regulators how many customers were disconnected in March. Aquarion indicated earlier that it will resume service to customers enrolled in a payment plan for their overdue bills, and would not require a downpayment.